What’s This Fantasy Doing in My Science Fiction epic?
There is a hard and fast rule that science fiction has science and that fantasy has magic, and thus the two genres will never be one.
That is the line that divides the genres, but as Noah Berlatsky explains the line is a lot fuzzier and crooked than it first appears.
“The Last Jedi” is set in large part in a green, mountainous landscape inhabited by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) — an old, grizzled dude with flowing robes and mysterious powers. The plot involves talk of royal bloodlines, astral projection, swords that choose their wielders, and an epic battle between light and a twisted, all-seeing Sauron-like darkness. The film also includes cute Disney-like snow cats and owl-critters, and it opens with the words, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," which sure sounds like a variation on the classic "Once upon a time."
"The Last Jedi" is built around magic and mysticism and backwards-looking nostalgia for a time of knights and royal houses. Those are tropes of fantasy, not of future-obsessed science fiction.
Or is it? To figure out whether Star Wars is science fiction, you first need to figure out how to define the term — which is harder than you might think. Genres are notoriously difficult to pin down, which is why they spark so many arguments. Some country fans protested loudly when Beyoncé appeared at the Country Music Awards because she (supposedly) was not a country artist. Some critics similarly argued that Bob Dylan’s lyrics are not literature, though the Nobel committee disagreed.
At first glance this seems ridiculous, but Noah is not wrong. Science fiction stories frequently include elements that are so fantastical that they cannot be explained via science or technology, and thus are more appropriately classified as magical realism, a fantasy subgenre that "expresses a primarily realistic view of the real world while also adding or revealing magical elements", and sometimes SF stories use so much handwavium that the characters might as well be waving a magic wand.
For example, the TV series Fringe was ostensibly an SF series where a team of investigators encountered science or tech run amok, but many of the incidents involved ideas that were simply scientifically impossible.
And then there’s Doctor Who, a series about an alien with a time machine that could just as easily be described as a magic blue box and a sonic screwdriver that, thematically speaking, is literally a magic wand. (And let’s not get into the stories, which frequently descend into magical realism.)
To be clear, I am not excluding these stories from the SF genre so much as noting that in my opinion some subgenres of fantasy come with a healthy dollop of tech mixed in.
And sometimes that is on purpose.
John Ringo wrote a series 15 years ago which proved the axiom that any sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic. The Council Wars series explored the war that ensued after a high tech civilization collapsed on Earth. It had everything from spells to elves to dragons, but everything was explained through advanced tech like nanotechnology, force fields, and teleportation.
So tell me, if these stories are arguably fantasy, then what is science fiction?
I would love to hear your answer to the question, because I don’t have one.
The idea that fantasy can come with advanced tech is a revelation to this. I used to think I didn’t like fantasy, when it turns out I just like my fantasy with a lot of tech mixed in.
What do you think?